Life Science Compliance Update

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January 14, 2011

Tabloid Medicine

Tabloid Medicine 
Every day, millions of people turn to the Internet for medical advice and guidance, often without investigating the sources they rely upon. In fact, many Americans today being their quest for better health with a “click” or a visit to Google before or even instead of going to the doctor. As a result, people too often believe what they find on the Web, and instead of helping patients, the recent trend of “Tabloid Medicine” is hurting out health.

According to health policy expert Robert Goldberg, PhD, tabloid medicine is medical reporting or information based on or consisting of Internet material that sensationalizes and exaggerates the dangers of medical technology without describing the benefits. In his recently published book entitled “Tabloid Medicine: How the Internet Is Being Used to Hijack Medicale Science for Fear of Profit,” Dr. Goldberg explains that tabloid medicine retells the same scary story over and over: Companies in pursuit of profit, with the help of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), researchers and doctors who are corrupted by industry cash are coveruing up the real dangers of their medicines for the sake of profit.


Interestingly, what motivated Dr. Goldberg to write this book is that information from the internet about certain medications and treatments nearly killed his daughter on two separate occasions. As he describes in the introduction of his book, first his daughter was afraid of taking a medicine necessary to her ability to recover from an eating disorder several years ago. Then, his health insurance plan denied payment for his daughter’s treatment based on the conclusion of a comparative effectiveness research (CER) study that more care would not help.

As a result, Dr. Goldberg wrote his book because he wants to help other families avoid the same situation. He also noted that he believes that the profitable commercialization of medical innovation is essential to America’s continued well-being.

Tabloid Medicine

Dr. Goldberg explains in his book examples of tabloid medicine such as claims that vaccines cause autism or brain damage; that diabetes drugs cause heart attacks or that antidepressants cause suicide. He also points out that tabloid medicine makes claims that the vast majority of doctors and the bulk of medical research can’t be trusted because it is conducted with industry support. He notes that the case of Vioxx is a great example of tabloid medicine and was only made possible by the success in scaring people about the risks of vaccines and depression meds before it.

In his book, he also points out that the internet has become a source of narratives designed to create fear and sow distrust and that the Web is a powerful tool for doing so. He compares tabloid medicine to urban legends of the past. The difference with tabloid medicine today is that the Internet is a cheap and efficient way to spread such legends for fear and profit, and he predicts that this trend will only get worse with the growing use of Twitter, Facebook and hand held devices for sharing information.

Dr. Goldberg explains that tabloid medicine is dangerous because it literally scares people to death by discouraging them from using products that are essential to their well-being. For example, he noted that when people don’t get their children immunized with the MMR vaccine, we see outbreaks of whooping cough, meningitis and measles.

The decline in prescribing and use of anti-depressants led to an increase in teen suicides. The decline in the use of non-steroidal painkillers, cholesterol lowering drugs, blood pressure medicines, certain diabetes pills and even certain types of hormone replacement therapies, because of fear of lethal side effects has been more deadly than the rare risks associated with such treatments.

In the long term, Dr. Goldberg explains, it means that the precautionary principle—we shouldn’t use new technologies until we are absolutely sure they are completely safe—becomes the standard for commercializing innovations. And that means fewer new medicines in the future, something he says we are already seeing post-Vioxx.

The book goes on to explain that while every type of medicine—whether it’s an herbal medicine, vitamin, prescription drug or vaccine—has serious risks along with considerable benefits, tabloid medicine is creating fear of unknown dangers by overstating and generalizing the risk. Dr. Goldberg explains that the goal of medicine and medical research is to increasingly develop treatments and their use to the unique ways we get sick and our bodies respond to care. However, proponents of tabloid medicine claim that even the science of personalized medicine is dangerous. That makes it more likely that we will avoid medicines and distrust those who make them and will trust those courageous outsiders who are exposing the threat.

In discussing what motivates people to create ‘tabloid medicine,’ Dr. Goldberg explains that it is a combination of ideology and a desire to make money. Some claim they are protecting the public from the ‘medical industrial complex.’ These individuals want to decide what research is done, what medicines and vaccines are approved and which treatments we should take because, as they claim, they are not ‘corrupted or influenced’ by industry.

Dr. Goldberg acknowledges that some of the criticisms tabloid medicine proponents make are valid, just as some studies comparing one treatment to another do find in some cases, cheaper is better or less is more. But does that mean because they are right in some instances, their findings are always more reliable or that if we give them power based on their “wisdom” we will live longer lives? Dr. Goldberg’s book argues that the public is harmed by tabloid medicine because its proponents are willing to ignore science or even misstate it in order to gain power and money in the process.

In an article published in the Washington Times, Dr. Goldberg notes that a US government vaccine panel is giving into tabloid medicine and false fears and has reversed their recommendation on Meningococcal disease vaccines (among the leading causes of preventable infant death in the United States) over fears of rare side effects.


In the end, Dr. Goldberg offers a few recommendations on how to address tabloid medicine. First, he suggests that people rely on websites and sources of information that provide a discussion of risks and benefits without hyperbole. Second, people should listen to their doctors. Third, people should seek out sites and tools that allow you to individualize your treatment and prevent illness. Fourth, companies must start providing consumers with continually updated information about their products effectiveness.

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